I started the original blog that led to this webpage because I was disgusted and concerned by how party politics had come to Camden and the secrecy around important decisions.
It is clear at every level of politics, when politicians are concerned about power for themselves and their party, communities come second or third behind political pettiness.
And now, even after an election that seemed to give the balance of power to an independent, the political games and hunger for power are back big time.
The first sign that political games were afoot again in Camden appeared in the business paper for the first meeting, which was uploaded on Friday, September 23 – four days before the meeting to elect the mayor. Whether coincidentally or with forethought, it revealed an unusual seating arrangement that favored the Liberals.
Newly minted councillor Rob Mills and the man who holds the balance of power was placed to the left of three Liberals wedging him between the Liberal voting bloc and Liberal mayor Lara Symkowiak.
On the table opposite were the three Labor councillors and independent Cr Eva Campbell.
It was very much an arrangement that suggested battle lines had been drawn and it clearly gave a key advantage to the Liberals if they wanted to influence Rob Mills’ crucial vote. And his vote was crucial as this meeting showed.
And lets be clear here before we go any further, there is no formalised plan in legislation or council regulations that states how the council seating must be arranged. Someone has decided on this arrangement.
Which means who ever drew up the seating plan has either
- Given little or no thought to the seating arrangement and missed the opportunity to remove the perception of bias and party politics that has started to become a part of the public discussion around this council, or
- Those who decided on the arrangement have given a great deal of thought to the arrangement and intentionally decided to give an advantage to the Liberal councilors.
The media unit replied: “As was the practice with the previous Council, there are two lines of 4 seats available, with one seat at the front for the Mayor as the Chair of the meeting. The Councillors were then arranged generally by their respective groups. Councillors were then seated according to their respective wards - Central, South and North.”
Even if that was the case it is hard to imagine the person who made this decision wasn’t aware of the serious community concern about party politics over the past term. And it is worth noting that this practice only came into being when the Liberals took power last term.
The General Manager has a role here. It is likely that even if the General Manager didn’t directly make this decision he at least approved it. If he had no role, and this was an error of judgment on the part of one of his employees, then perhaps he should look to change the seating at the next meeting to reduce the perception of bias.
A more sensible approach might be to divide councillors into wards - seated in the order they were voted in - rather than by party. Taking that approach would certainly remove any perception that one party was being favoured over another and could be used as the basis for seating plans from here on in that would not advantage any one group.
Sadly, the sense that political games were being played didn’t end with the seating arrangement. It was just the beginning.
The secret ballot
Just before the first meeting, Rob Mills and the Liberal councillors made their Oath of Affirmation in the General Manager’s office, away from public view.
They all came in to the council chambers together - the Liberals, Cr Rob Mills and General Manager Ron Moore.
It certainly gave a strong hint that first time councillor Rob Mills was now one of the Liberal gang and his voting pattern throughout the meeting seemed to confirm it.
But the most startling moment was when Liberal novice Cr Michael Morrison, at his first meeting, seemed to show a lot of political nous when it came time for the mayoral vote. Jumping in early, he put forward a motion that the election would be run as an ordinary ballot.
This motion for an “ordinary ballot” might sound like business as usual to those new to council but it is not.
In Camden Council, the vote has most often been by a show of hands. By contrast an ordinary ballot is anonymous, with votes placed into a box. It means the public is unlikely to know how the councillors voted unless told after the event.
It is surprising that as a first time councilor, Cr Morrison would even be aware of this change in procedure and consider this motion. Perhaps he had been advised by someone to take this approach.
The motion was supported and passed because of the vote of Cr Rob Mills.
Had Rob Mills not admitted during our interview that he had voted with the Liberals to install Cr Lara Symkowiak as mayor and Cr Therese Fideli as deputy mayor, voters would be none the wiser.
We also know how each councillor voted because ALP councillor Paul Farrow confirmed that he and his ALP colleagues voted for Eva Campbell as mayor. Cr Farrow even showed Cr Campbell his vote before placing it in the box.
Libs get plum places on committees
Then came the votes for the committee selection. In this case the Liberals and Rob Mills decided that an anonymous ballot was not necessary for the selection of committee members.
And once again, Rob Mills vote was crucial and again it favoured the Liberals.
By the end of the night the Liberals held 28 committee positions (1 alternate), the ALP held 10 positions (4 alternates), Eva Campbell held 3 (1 alternate) and Rob Mills held 5 (4 alternates).
Just to clarify, an alternate committee member replaces one of the primary members should they be indisposed. Generally alternates do not take part in these committees.
When alternate positions are factored in to the final count, the Liberal dominance becomes even more extreme, with three times an many Liberals holding primary positions on committees than the rest of the council combined.
So, by the end of the night, Rob Mills vote had given the Liberals the power of the casting vote for the next two years – until the next mayoral election – and control of the great majority of committees.
What now for Cr Mills?
The meeting showed just how crucial Rob Mills vote will be over the next term. He is clearly the most powerful man on this council and potentially holds more sway than mayor Lara Symkowiak – if he chooses to exercise that power.
However, the first meeting strongly suggests Rob Mills has already been captured by the Liberals - handing them a majority, and taking away his own power.
The seating arrangements even further increase the pressure the Liberals can place on Cr Mills vote if for any reason he starts to waver in his support.
For Central Ward voters who thought they were bringing balance to the council by overwhelming voting for an independent, the disappointment must be acute.
Perhaps Rob Mills will again fly the colours of a true independent over the next four years but after the first meeting of the new council those colours certainly seem to tend more towards Liberal red.